Two years ago I had my first conversation with Thum in River Falls. Over the last four plus years at Warpaint Illustrated, in an effort to get to know the people behind the scenes, I’ve asked many people about the individual who until recently was Carl Peterson’s right hand man. Why would someone work for so long in one place when clearly, he had the ability to lead any NFL franchise?
The answer I received was pretty universal. Loyalty. That might sum up Thum the best, but so do the following words: dedicated, risk-taker, passionate. For a long time, he was half of one of the NFL’s most driven front offices. He and Peterson worked side by side since 1989.
When the two started there were no guarantees or promises. Thum had to prove to Peterson that a one-time staff accountant was worthy of a chance to succeed under new management.
What Peterson found was a man who was the yin to his yang. It’s not easy to negotiate contracts with certain agents, but the two worked as one. When one man had to be hard on agents, the other came in and played the good cop.
None of that would have happened had Thum made the early decision that put him in a position to take his first job with the Chiefs some 35 years ago. In that span he has risen to the top of his profession and might be the NFL’s best capologist.
Some might be surprised to learn that Thum is a local boy. After attending St. Louis University High School he graduated from Rockhurst College in 1974. That was the same year he was hired by the Chiefs as a staff accountant.
That’s hardly a glamour job in NFL circles - especially in the mid 70’s - but everyone has to start somewhere.
BECOMING A CHIEF
Thum’s easy style and strong business sense have kept him a valued member of the organization, but the temptation to go elsewhere is something he’s considered. However, there was one overriding factor that made him stay in Kansas City.
“I think it goes back to Lamar Hunt and the Hunt family,” Thum said. “The best recruiters we have in this organization have been former players, coaches and executives who go to other teams. What they find out is that the grass isn’t always greener on the other side. This is as great an organization as there is with the way they treat people. The Hunt family has always concerned themselves with you, your family and their health. You don‘t find that elsewhere.”
Still, sooner or later you get the urge to move. It’s only a matter of time until other teams start calling. But none of them have matched what the Chiefs offer to Thum personally and to his family.
“I’ve had opportunities to go to other places to run my own show,” he said. “But they didn’t have an owner like Lamar Hunt and you weren’t able to do the same things you could do in Kansas City. There was no reason to leave, because I appreciated the Hunt family.”
Thum’s relationship with the Hunts wasn’t the only reason he chose to remain in Kansas City. His mentor and friend, Peterson, had a lot to do with his KC tenure. Thum has always known that if a job offer he couldn’t refuse came along, nobody would be more supportive than Peterson.
Even with Peterson leaving, Thum feels he hasn’t accomplished everything he wants to in Kansas City. But the fact he lasted so long says something about the relationship the two men had. In the beginning they had to learn each other’s strengths and weaknesses.
Thum after a victory
Hank Young - KC Chiefs
“When Carl came into the organization in 1989 he didn’t know me other than my reputation,” said Thum. “That was when “plan B” began, and he said to me ‘I’ll give you a six-month contract, and we’ll see if we can work together.’ That six-month contract turned into us continuing to work together. He is as sincere as the Hunt family.”
Once the two began to trust one another Thum started handling more of the contract aspects. Why? As Peterson told Warpaint Illustrated a year ago, contract negotiations are something he doesn’t particularly enjoy.
“Denny is a Saint,” said Peterson.
Thum always understood his role in contract negotiations. Whether he was the good cop or the bad cop, the end result is all that mattered. The glory was secondary to getting the deal done.
“I think as much as anything, both of us have been doing this for a long time,” says Thum “It’s nothing new. I think I’ve had more of an opportunity to talk with these agents. I have more of a rapport with them because he doesn’t have the time to do that all that legwork anymore. I probably have a lot more patience than he does, but we work off each other very well, because our goal is to get the best players that we can. Sometimes I get to be the good guy, but that’s very rare. Usually he’s the guy who gets to be the good guy, and the last guy coming in.”
WORKING THE AGENTS
Sometimes, even Thum admitted that contract talks get to him - as in the case of the infamous Ethan Lock negotiation, featuring an agent who orchestrated one of the most bizarre contract situations in team history.
In 1999 the Chiefs made BYU tackle John Tait their number one draft choice. Just before the team picked Tait, Peterson talked to Lock and indicated the price structure set for his client would be a certain amount of dollars. Though the Chiefs only had 15 minutes to make a decision on whether to draft Tait or pass on him for another player, it’s likely the two sides understood the parameters.
But when it came time to get Lock’s client under contract, it got personal. There was shouting, screaming, an upset player and family. Throw in the fact it happened under a rookie head coach in Gunther Cunningham, and the whole situation was a mess.
It was simply a young agent going up against the big boys, and he got his hand slapped. In the end it took a mountain of phone calls and a personal trip by Peterson to Arizona to meet with Tait’s family.
In the end, Thum and Peterson settled Tait down, and his agent accepted a deal worth even less than the one offered on draft day.
So it’s clear negotiating contracts is a risky business. You have to be prepared for anything.
“I think as much as anything, the negotiation process is long and drawn out,” said Thum. “If it were easy, everyone would do it. It is difficult because everyone is looking out for the best interests for the agent, and the player, and for us, for the club.”
But what about the Lock circus?
“That was more staged than anything else,” Thum recalled with a grin. “I think if they were honest with you, and I’m honest with you about the whole thing, I think some of it was a setup to stimulate negotiations. It was funny how they were able to go ahead and establish a press conference at the Adams Mark hotel.”
“You learn your lessons. What I’ve found over the years is that you build relationships with people and you hope that they would not do something to you that you would not do to them. And I think over a period of time they understand it. Hopefully they know that everyone has a job to do and you’re trying to do your best for your side. So don’t add drama to it. We’re all big boys and eventually it always gets done sooner or later.”
The other aspect of Thum’s job has been to manage the ever-changing salary cap. The hard part is not only how to spend the money, but more importantly when to spend the money.
To the credit of the Chiefs and the Hunt family, apart from this past season, they’ve spent up to the cap limit each year.
“That goes back to our late owner, Lamar Hunt,” said Thum. “When he hired Carl and he retained me in this organization, he had enough confidence in what we did for him. He basically said ‘I know how much money we have available.”
It’s hardly that simple, however. It’s a process that requires crunching numbers well in advance each year. In the past, Thum and Peterson had to present a budget to the Hunt family every year – sometimes as early as September or October, in preparation for the next season.
Thum paces the sidelines before a game
Hank Young - KC Chiefs
“They want what’s best for the Kansas City Chiefs,” said Thum. “So if we can max out or utilize the amount of cap room that we have - not only for this year but next year - to be able to address players whose contracts will come up, or that we want to retain or prospective free agents, we’ve had the wherewithal to do so.”
That’s a huge reason why the Chiefs have been able to bring in talented players via free agency and also retain key veterans throughout Thum’s tenure. Still, the freedom to do so was only possible because of one man – the late Lamar Hunt.
Every year, before the Chiefs signed their top draft pick, Thum and Peterson would ask the franchise founder what he thought about their proposal. His response?
“Every single time he would say ‘whatever you think is best,’ and you can’t ask for anything more than that from your owner,” says Thum. “In fact, Lamar never liked that word - he preferred to always be called the founder.”
WORKING THE DRAFT/FREE AGENCY
When Herm Edwards took over for Dick Vermeil in 2006, the organization began to overhaul the philosophy under a new coaching staff. It was important for the Chiefs to build youth through the draft. That wasn’t lost on Thum.
“Without question the lifeblood of any organization is the draft,” he said. “You have to have young players that make your football team and contribute, because in most cases they are making a lot less money and you have to be able to coach them up and train them. But you can’t fill all of your needs through the draft because another team might take a player that you were interested in taking.”
That was the case two years ago as the Chiefs prepared for the draft. As the first round began to unfold, the Chiefs were narrowing their selection down to several players, but a run on a certain position forced them to change direction.
“We wanted to take a corner in the first round,” said Thum. “It didn’t happen because there was a run on cornerbacks, but we had two other positions that we were looking at in offensive line and wide receiver. And we were able to draft a very good player in Dwayne Bowe.”
Of course signing draft picks is just one part of Thum’s job. Adding free agents can be different, because the risk is generally far greater than the reward. You never know what you get with someone who you don’t personally draft and develop. Generally the Chiefs have found some bargains, and even superstars, but they’ve also swung and missed.
Thum realizes that free agency plays a role, but should be a small part of a larger picture.
“The problem with free agents is that if they are as good as what they are supposed to be, in most cases teams are not going to let them out of their sights,” he said. “So you have to bring players in who have different ways of doing things. So there is a training process, or they have some baggage that you were not counting on, so there is a reason that a team didn’t re-sign them. So you have to sprinkle in those players who can fill areas of needs. But you don’t want to get into that all the time because you always seem to over pay that guy from another team.”
THUM’S KANSAS CITY MEMORIES
1994 AFC Wild-card playoff
“At home it was when Joe Montana hit Tim Barnett in the back of the end zone for a touchdown, when Joe didn’t even know it was fourth down. The ball just stuck in Barnett’s chest. Before that, Keith Cash blocked a huge punt and that was probably the most exciting year we had. This town was on fire. They could not get enough of the Chiefs that year.”
1994 AFC Divisional playoff
“Joe Montana handed the ball off to Marcus Allen, and with his back to the play he was already raising his hands in the air before Marcus was across the line of scrimmage. That still gives me a chill.”
“But best of all for me was sitting in the bowels of the Astrodome after the game and Marty Schottenheimer was doing a press conference, and Joe Montana was the star of the game. We were sitting on these folding chairs in the bowels of this dumpy stadium, and Joe was completely drained.”
“Carl and I looked at him, and his bursa sack had filled up to the size of a grapefruit under his elbow. I’d never seen anything like it. He was like Cool Hand Luke, when Paul Newman ate the eggs? He had accomplished something not many people though he could do. That was one of the greatest moments for me.”
This article originally appeared in Warpaint Illustrated the Magazine. If you want more information about the only Magazine Dedicated to the Kansas City Chiefs, follow the link below.
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